walk the earth

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Burundi or Bust

The day after visiting the gorillas, Dave and I headed west in a packed minibus to the town of Gisenyi, on the north end of Lake Kivu. Kivu splits Rwanda from the Congo (aka Zaire, aka Democratic Republic of Congo) and is exceptionally beautiful. We had heard from a couple of other travellers in Rwanda that the Congo made for an interesting day trip. Just over the Congo border lies the town of Goma, which was half covered in hot liquid magma during a volcanic eruption in 2002. So we decided to cross over and check it out.

Lunch spot, beside Lake Kivu, Rwanda.
(Looks nice, right? A few minutes after this photo was taken a prostitute came over to our table and stole a french fry off Dave's plate, apparently upset after we rather directly declined her services.)

Lake Kivu, Rwanda.

Local transport. Goma, Congo.

Our transport. Goma, Congo.

The sights around Goma were refugee camps, Asian UN peacekeepers in APCs and Land Cruisers and hoards of shifty taxi drivers around a busy airport. A 20 minute ride out to the lava should cost $5, our lowest offer was $40, and the highest was $100, all bargaining done in French. Thus we took the motorcycles which were $5.

Lava flow covering village, Congo.

Crowned Crane, lunch spot, Congo. Best burger in Africa.

Local Beer. Delicious.

Another view of Lake Kivu, Rwanda. A nice lakeside stroll to and from the Congo border.

Rwanda to Burundi:
Burundi is a beautiful small country south of Rwanda which is currently enjoying peace after a 13 year civil war. We were planning to head to Lake Tanganyika, in Tanzania with a stop for a few days in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Up until a few months ago, Burundi was considered off limits to travellers (see linked travel warning above) We had met a few travellers that had just come through with great success and reported a calm country with friendly people. I had been planning to go around the country through Tanzania, but that was pretty far out of the way, and transport would have been a combination of minibuses, pickup trucks, if anything. Not exactly ideal options. We found a direct bus from Kigali, Rwanda to Bujumbura, Burundi (Yahoo! Express) and had a tip on a good budget hotel there. So, we went for it. It was a superb journey through the most stunning country I've in Africa.

Typical road scene, Burundi.

Village near the Rwanda-Burundi border. I couldn't take too many pictures because the police are still a little weary of people with cameras.

While in Buj, we were trying to find a cargo ship to take us down the lake to Kigoma, where we'd get another ferry further south. However, we never found a boat that was willing to take us on the 16 hour journey, and really weren't all that enthused to spend 16 hours on a cargo ship either. While walking around the port we came across the Medicine San Frotiers (Doctors Without Borders) Logistics base and spoke to Stella, the manager there. She gave us to best quote of the trip: "You guys are brave, I think you're the first tourists I've seen." But she had no idea of cargo ships we could hitch on to Kigoma, so we took a minibus (as per usual) to the nearest town to the border, then a taxi, then had a couple mile stroll to the Tanzanian border post. Its not the "most popular" way to go, but it was really fun to do it.

Lets Go O's. Burundi kids near the Tanzanian border.

The crew crossing the Burundi-Tanzania border. It was a 1 or 2 miles from the gate on the Burundi side on a dirt road to the Immigration building on the Tanzanian side, a gorgeous walk through the woods.

Cross border commerce, Burundi-Tanzania.

The landscape between the two borders, looking into the Congo. Awesome.

Safe and sound in Tanzania. We've been in Kigoma on the shore of Lake Tanganyika for 4 days now, and were getting a little bored.

Dave and I going over the options for the day in Kigoma, there is a nice Internet cafe...

Ah, it's not that bad, it's a beautiful small town with a port. We're getting on the MV Liemba ferry boat today at 4pm for a two and a half day trip down the lake (which is the second deepest in the world, and the second largest in Africa) to Southern Tanzania and then onto Malawi. The MV Liemba is a 93 year old ferry, we hold first class tickets, we're bringing 12 liters of drinking water and some fruit. It should be very interesting... We've met up with the only other tourist in Kigoma, an Frenchman named Pierre, who will also be coming with us.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Roll around Rwanda

Updated: Now with more words!

Rwanda is simply amazing. It's called the land of a thousand hills, but it has millions of them. Each one is lush and covered in terraced fields of banana trees, tea, coffee, etc. For a country that experienced a horrific genocide in 1994, it has made a remarkable recovery. The wounds are literally still visible around the country. There's a noticeably high number of amputees in Kigali, the capital. However, as it's commonly said, Rwanda is a country looking forward, not back. It's easy to forget what happened here, but essential not to. The international community failed to help Rwandans when they needed it most, by not stepping in to stop the massacre. So for the past decade they've been making up for it with "guilt money" as in an enormous amount of aid and relief. Almost every UN agency and NGO imaginable is here, their white Land Cruisers burning around town by the hundreds.

Dave and I took a two hour taxi from Uganda over the border and then into Kigali, the capital. The border was pretty chilled out, no tanks, and only a handful of armed men and lots of fuel trucks standing around a muddy road with some buildings. As an Americano, I get into Rwanda for free! no visa required, thank you. (Visas in Africa are generally an expensive and useless hassle, in my opinion. As I've seen on a couple of occasions my $50 USD bill go directly into the pants pocket of the Immigration official, and been issued no receipt. Hmm, that's odd? I would complain, but that would be extremely stupid. And would result in being delayed for not having some other form of paperwork, another passport sized photograph, or vaccination card; and then having to pay even more. I fund the ever expanding bellies of African immigration officials.)

French and Kirwandan are the primary languages here, so my two years of high school French got a real work out. Dave spoke it better than I, and was often looked to for translation when doing the always important work of negotiating a fair price for taxis, beers, hotel rooms, fruit, etc. I found that I could still understand conversations well and read menus just fine, so it was fun.

We spent a few days checking out the city in perhaps the worst hotel we could find. Hotel Gloria. HG had an excellent location in the city center, cheap rate, and that's about all. No water, pillows, mosquito nets, or electricity. It did however have a flock of the biggest mosquitoes I've seen to date, and they all seemed to be living in our room. I got a few bites. The hotel man, who we nick named "Shi-Thead," would come by around 6pm to spray toxic mosquito killer spray in our room. It was like tear gas, we would have to open all the windows, ok the one window, to let it dissipate. During the dissipation process, we would have to be far far away from the room, or we couldn't breath. So, the mosquitoes would leave and come back later through the open windows, completely defeating the death spray. I didn't shower for three days (no water) and was feeling a little less than fresh for a while. I did have the good idea of going to the Hotel Mille Collies (aka Hotel Rwanda, which the recent movie was based on) to use their pool and outdoor shower. The hotel, pool, and shower were excellent. Quite an improvement over Hotel Gloria. We took off for the North and the town of Ruhengeri the next day.

I came to Rwanda out of curiosity and interest. Curious to see a place that I remembered vaguely from the news long ago, and interested in seeing Rwanda's top draw, and the focus of Dian Fossey's research, the mountain gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park.

Volcanoes in the mist... A nice 4:30 am wake up call.

Parc National Des Volcans is where Dian Fossey did her famous study of the Mountain Gorilla, as made famous by the book and movie "Gorillas in the Mist." She was also murdered here, apparently by one of the poachers she worked very hard to keep out of the park.
The park is really an amazing place, it's very easy to see why she fell in love with the environment and the creatures.
Our day began at 6am when we met up with Steve and a Canadian named Cheryl. We had to rent a Land Cruiser for the day to transport us up to the park headquarters and then onto the trail head to our Gorilla group for the day, which was the 14 member Amahoro group.
We were grouped with 4 older Canadians, all from "ThUUUUnder Bay" Ontario. (as they pronounced it.) A nice group that was in Rwanda to build a school and develop a curriculum for the teachers as part of a church based organization. I forget the name. So we all piled into two Land Cruisers after meeting our guide for the day, aptly named Patience. He's been a guide for 7 years and was one of the people who habituated the gorilla group we would visit today. There's about 8 groups of gorillas in the Rwandan section of Parc National Des Volcans, a few that are habituated to humans for tourists to visit, a few that are left alone, and a couple that are studied by researchers.
So, we took off up the muddy road for about 25 minutes to the trailhead and the Canadians Cruiser got stuck, so they jumped into the back of ours. We all made it up there and hopped out, got some hiking sticks and were off!

Which way do we go? up. There's Patience, being ever so patience with our probably dumb questions about Gorillas, and explaining their diet and habits.

The Steve. Traveling with yet another Brit, they're all good fun.

huge earth worms all over the trail.

Mzungus in the mist. The hike up to the Amahoro group was excellent. We started in some farm fields just outside the park barrier and continued up on slippery, muddy trails for about 2 hours. The trail ended and we then followed trackers through some really thick vegetation to the actual gorilla group. It was misty and cool, perfect. Though, at times, slightly uncomfortable because of the stinging nettles which remarkably could sting us through our pants. Not to be out done by the nettles, there were ants that had a keen sense of direction and desire to congregate and bite a few of us in the 'crotch region.' They would start around the ankle, having easily penetrated our socks and pants, then make a mad dash for the old family jewels. We had to stop a few times so the women could go behind some bushes to extract these little biting bastards from their underpants. I found this quite hilarious until they got me, then the humor of the situation was somewhat lost as I dropped my pants in the middle of the jungle to remove the unwanted guests. Over the two hours I became pretty good at heading them off at the upper thigh, and had only one or two bandits make it across the proverbial 'border.' So ants and nettles aside, awesome hike. Once we got near the group, our patient guide, Patience, informed us that the trackers had lost sight of the gorillas and it would take up to 6 hours for us to find them. While the Canadians were freaking out and about to mount a full on hysterical tirade, Patience patiently informed them that he was only kidding, and pointed to where the Gorillas were quietly munching on some wild celery stalks. I've never seen a group of people go from extremely annoyed to extremely excited so quickly. I'm sure he does this same trick everyday, can't blame him. The reaction was pretty funny. Anyway, we walked up to the group and that's when the quickest one hour of my life began as I watched and took endless photos of the encounter with some of the rarest primates in the world. There are about 500 mountain gorillas left in the world, their habitat constantly shrinking.

We smelled them before we saw them, and then BAM, the silverback charged right up to us to make his presence known.

we got right into the middle of the 14 member group. They were climbing all around us and eating some veg.

This little fella enjoyed our company and was jumping all over.


Heeeead. like an orange on a toothpick. The big cranium of the silverback.


enjoying some celery.

we got too close and he politely asked us to back away. It may be difficult to tell from the photos but this guy was over 500 pounds.

I filled my memory card with a few hundred photos and a video or two of the hour with the gorillas, it was beyond words. So cool, and very surreal. We were surrounded by misty volcanic mountains, the thickest vegetation and there were 14 mountain gorillas playing and eating all around us, not the least bit put off by our presence. I felt like the silverback was going to look at me and start talking, they were so much like us. It's hard to explain I guess, but I'll never forget that hour. magical.